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Alberta Politics Daveberta Podcast

Episode 44: LIVE from the Parkland Institute Conference: Truth, the First Casualty? War Rooms and Rumours of War Rooms

Daveberta Podcast host Dave Cournoyer teamed up with AlbertaPolitics.ca writer David Climenhaga at the annual Parkland Institute Conference at the University of Alberta last weekend to share what we know and what we speculate might happen with the Canadian Energy Centre Ltd. (a.k.a. the War Room) and the Public Inquiry into anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns.

Find out more about the Parkland Institute and their research and reports, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you to our producer Adam Rozenhart for doing a great job improving the audio quality of this episode (it was recorded on Dave’s iPhone). 

The Daveberta Podcast is a member of the Alberta Podcast Network, powered by ATB. The Alberta Podcast Network includes more than 30 great made-in-Alberta podcasts.

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(Photo: David Climenhaga and Dave Cournoyer, source: Dave Cournoyer)

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Alberta Politics

Albertans might need a public inquiry into the Public Inquiry into anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns

It was not a banner week for Alberta’s public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns.

It was supposed to look into the alleged foreign funding of “anti-Alberta energy campaigns,” but the $2.5 million public inquiry created by Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government found itself in a credibility crisis this week after it was revealed that inquiry commissioner Steve Allan awarded the Calgary law firm Dentons a $905,000 sole-source contract for legal advice.

Allan’s son is a partner at Dentons’ Calgary office and Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer was a lawyer at that firm before he was elected to the Legislative Assembly. Schweitzer said he severed his connections to the firm earlier this year, but Allan’s son’s employment status at the firm raises some serious questions about conflict of interest.

New Democratic Party MLA Heather Sweet wrote to the Ethics Commissioner this week asking for an investigation into the sole-source contract. The Ethics Commissioner responded that she has no jurisdiction to investigate the inquiry’s contract with Dentons.

The inquiry’s business is shrouded in secrecy and it was designed by the government to be exempt from Freedom of Information requests that would allow a certain degree of transparency. For example, the inquiry website states that Allan intended to travel to Vancouver and Washington, DC in September 2019, and the North Coast of BC and Toronto in October 2019, but because the inquiry is exempt from FOIP requests, it is unclear who he met with during his travels.

But that has not stopped the media from digging, and the leaks from leaking.

Allen is being paid $291,000 for his one-year contract, according to information gathered by Alberta Today’s Allison Smith, and will be paid up to $800 per day to provide testimony following the completion of the inquiry’s investigation. The Edmonton Journal reported that the inquiry is hiring a part-time executive director for $108,123.

CBC also reported that Allan donated $1,000 Schweitzer’s campaign for the UCP leadership in 2017, which raises questions about the nature of his appointment as the inquiry’s commissioner.

Much of the basis of the inquiry’s investigation, that foreign-funded organizations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund are responsible for secretly financing anti-pipeline and anti-oil groups in Canada, appears to have been discredited by investigative research done by the National Observer’s Sandy Garossino.

Garossino analyzed data on international charitable granting and found that international foundations, mostly American, have granted around $2 billion to Canadian groups over the last decade, but only 2 per cent of those funds (around $40 million) has gone towards pipeline opposition.

Of that $2 billion total in international funds, about 33 per cent came from the United States government. The second largest funder is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, contributed $537 million. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund environmental grants, which have been demonized in Alberta’s political and media circles, amounted to “just two dollars per thousand in Canadian foreign grants.”

The Muttart Foundation, a non-profit foundation with a storied history in Edmonton, released a stinging criticism of the inquiry in its 174-page submission to the inquiry.

The Foundation’s submission included a report showing that funding from outside Canada represented 0.85% of total funding received by Canadian charities, and 0.26% of total funding received by charities based in Alberta.

The Foundation harshly criticized the rhetoric, fear-mongering, and false statements used to justify the inquiry and the government orders authorizing its creation.

To even imply that support of the energy industry or even agreement with government could become a criterion for determining whether an organization receives funding comes, we suggest, dangerously close to government direction of speech and thought. Leaving aside the legality of such an action, one could suggest that such a course of action would be contrary to the very principles of democracy.”

The inquiry is due to submit a final report to the Alberta government no later than July 2, 2020. In terms of the public inquiry’s credibility crisis and the damage it and the secrecy surrounding it could cause for our province’s reputation, Albertans might eventually need a public inquiry into the Public Inquiry into anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns.

International banks continue to divest from fossil fuels

While Steve Allan’s public inquiry is focused on anti-Alberta energy campaigns, the biggest threat to the oil and gas industry in Alberta might be the free market.

Sweden’s central bank announced this week that it no longer hold bonds issued by local authorities in Canada and Australia with high carbon-dioxide emissions. Bloomberg reported that the Riksbank said it had sold its holdings of securities from Alberta, where greenhouse gas emissions per capita are three times higher than in Ontario and Quebec.

The European Investment Bank, the EU’s financing department, also announced it will bar funding for most fossil fuel projects.

Premier Kenney’s principal secretary, David Knight-Legg, faced criticism this week after it was revealed that the senior political staffer stayed in upscale five-star hotels while travelling to London on Alberta government business. According to financial disclosures, Knight-Legg spent more than $45,000 on travel, including four trips to the British capital since the UCP formed government in April 2019.

The nature of Knight-Legg’s trips to London are not entirely clear, with the Premier’s office saying that he was there to fight defamation of Alberta’s oil and gas sector. The NDP is asking the Auditor General to investigate.

Meanwhile, the private corporation created by the Alberta government to fight defamation of the oil and gas sector has been running on silent. Not a peep has been heard from the $30 million War Room, now renamed the Canadian Energy Centre, since former reporter and defeated UCP candidate Tom Olsen was appointed as its managing director last month.

The War Room is also exempt from Freedom of Information requests.

(Photo source: Government of Alberta)

Categories
Alberta Politics

WAR ROOM ENGAGE! Kenney hires former UCP candidate Tom Olsen to run the Canadian Energy Centre

The Alberta government’s much talked about energy war room now has its General. Energy Minister Sonya Savage announced yesterday that Tom Olsen has been hired as the managing director of the newly incorporated Canadian Energy Centre. The $30-million publicly funded private corporation is part of the UCP’s “fight back strategy” to counter claims made by critics of the oil and gas industry that Premier Jason Kenney said will target politicians, media and other opinion leaders, and could include satellite offices overseas.

Joe Ceci Calgary NDP
Joe Ceci

Olsen was most recently the United Conservative Party candidate in the downtown Calgary-Buffalo riding in the 2019 provincial election, where he finished 9 per cent short of unseating former New Democratic Party finance minister Joe Ceci. But despite his recent electoral loss, Olsen has been a fixture of Conservative politics in Alberta for more than a decade.

After years as a columnist and reporter for the large daily newspapers in Calgary and Edmonton, Olsen jumped into politics when he was hired as Premier Ed Stelmach’s spokesperson in 2007. (Olsen’s brother, Gordon Olsen, worked in senior roles in the Premier’s Office while Ralph Klein occupied the office).

While some Albertans will remember Olsen for his role in the Northumberland beach photos fiasco, he also oversaw the launch of the first version of the war room.

In 2008, the Alberta government launched a website called “For the Record” that was dedicated to correcting what the government determined was incomplete or incorrect information in the media. “It’s not a forum to argue philosophy and spin. . . it’s not debating the rightness or wrongness of a particular issue. It’s about factual information,”Olsen told the Calgary Herald in December 2008. “I don’t see it as government policing journalists.”

The Alberta Government’s short-lived “For the Record” webpage.

It was the government policing journalists, and it did not last very long. The government website posted six corrections to news stories from various media outlets between November 2008 and December 2010. The website briefly became a source of controversy when Olsen insisted the Globe & Mail be referred to as the Toronto Globe & Mail. The website was later edited to drop Toronto from the newspaper’s name.

Following a wholesale purge of Stelmach’s senior communications staff, Olsen was whisked off to Vancouver to handle the Alberta government’s public relations during the 2010 Winter Olympics, which included the renting of the luxury Rocky Mountaineer train and the distribution of free iPads to journalists and VIPs.

Sonya Savage

Olsen later worked as a lobbyist for groups including the Calgary Residential Rental Association, Greyhound and the national group representing Pay Day Loan companies. He found himself back in the Progressive Conservative Party fold when he became Vice-President of Communications during Jim Prentice‘s brief time as party leader.

Savage, a former pipeline lobbyist and now a member of the war room board of directors along with Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer and Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, said this week that the war room will include a rapid response centre, an energy literacy unit and a data research unit. Former Postmedia columnist Claudia Cattaneo was hired in August 2019 by the government to write the Energy War Room Strategic plan.

Earlier this year, Postmedia hired Kenney’s former chief of staff, Nick Koolsbergen, to lobby the UCP government on ways the Toronto-headquartered newspaper company could be involved with the war room. 

In an interview with the Postmedia-owned Financial Post, Postmedia President and CEO Andrew MacLeod said that the lobby effort was part the company’s effort to find new revenue streams and that it had no relationship to editorial decision-making (meanwhile, the front cover of the Postmedia-owned National Post today featured a paid political advertisement attacking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau).

Andrew MacLeod Postmedia CEO President
Andrew MacLeod

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, a lobby group that represents many of Canada’s oil and gas companies, is also registered to lobby Alberta MLAs, the Minister of Energy and the Premier’s Office to share and advise on best practices for the war room to counter misinformation. 

Postmedia’s past relationship with CAPP is no secret, but these group’s business relationships with the war room could be.

As CBC’s Michelle Bellefontaine reported today, as a private corporation the Canadian Energy Centre will be exempt from freedom of information requests, meaning that Albertans might not ever know how much of the $30 million is paid to Postmedia, CAPP or whichever UCP-connected PR firms are hired to work for the publicly-funded private war room.

Regardless of which PR companies or Toronto-based newspaper company gets hired, Olsen will have his job cut out for him. The first order of business for the new Canadian Energy Centre might be playing defence for the Alberta government’s $2.5 million public inquiry into anti-oil campaigns – an effort that has been criticized as a witch-hunt by groups like EcoJustice and the venerable Amnesty International.

While it may be easy for Kenney to dismiss NGOs and suggest that the 4,000 Albertans participating in the climate strike protest outside the Legislature were communist sympathizers, Olsen’s war room will have a harder time dismissing its greatest opponent – the free market.

Many major international oil and gas corporations have withdrawn their investments in Canada’s oilsands over the past five years, and the UCP’s decision to scale back the Alberta government’s climate change commitments certainly will not help how our province is perceived internationally.

Conservatives howled loudly this week as a major Norwegian pension fund withdrew investments in four Alberta-based oilsands companies. The move was described by UCP supporters online as hypocritical, as Norway continues to make investments in its own off-shore oil and gas platforms. The move may have been hypocritical, but those are the types of decisions that countries like Norway can make when they have $1.1 trillion saved in the bank (something for Albertans to think about when they consider how much past governments have squandered our wealth).

Olsen’s biggest challenge might be to prove that the war room is more than a $30-million public relations subsidy to Alberta’s oil and gas companies.

Public attitudes toward fossil fuels and climate change are shifting dramatically, and Alberta risks becoming increasingly isolated on energy and climate issues on the national and international stage. Judging from the Alberta government’s numerous high-profile efforts over the past two decades to correct what it saw as misinformation about the oilsands and fight environmental advocates outside the province, the war room might be an example of the UCP preparing to fight the last war.


A short history of Alberta government  advertising campaigns and initiatives aimed at critics of oil and gas companies (I am sure I have missed a few):

2002: the Alberta government announced and later scrapped plans for an anti-Kyoto Accord advertising campaign in Ontario after focus group testing proved the messaging was unpopular among Torontonians.

2008: the Alberta government launched a public relations campaign targeting critics of the oilsands outside of Alberta, which included a 20-page glossy brochure entitled Alberta’s Oil Sands: Balance. Opportunity. This campaign included a North America and European speaking tour by the Premier.

2010: the Alberta government rolled out a slick $25-million “Tell It Like It Is” oilsands promotional campaign that included advertisements in London’s Piccadilly Circus and New York City’s Times Square. The multimedia blitz includes CDs and DVDs about “Alberta’s Clean Energy Future” and “A conversation on oilsands and the environment” – which features commentary from provincial experts.

2012: the Alberta government announced it was spending $77,000 on a pro-Keystone XL Pipeline advertising campaign during the Premier’s visit to Washington DC and hired lobbyists to directly lobby US officials.

2012: the federal Conservative government assigned Canadian diplomats to lobby Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. in order to counter campaigns launched by an environmental advocacy groups targeting the oilsands.

2013: the federal Conservative government launched a advertising campaign directed at American politicians ahead of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trip to the United States. The ad campaign described Canada as a “world environmental leader” on oil and gas development.

2018: the Alberta government spent more than $23 million promoting its KeepCanadaWorking advertising campaign in support of the expansion of the Trans Mountain PIpeline from Alberta to British Columbia.